Feliz día de Andalucía

I’m sure each of my readers will be celebrating the historic day in 1980 when Andalucía voted to become una comunidad autonóma and eagerly await La Madre Reférendum slipping through the shutters with her traditional gift of jamón.  As you tuck into your toast, olive oil and orange juice, surrounded by happy juvenile cries of ‘Olé‘, spare a thought for those of us who share this date with our birthday and so only receive a single set of presents.  They tell us that there are twice as many, but who really falls for that old line?

All of which nonsense, founded on a few grains of truth, is by way of introduction to the annual post celebrating the author’s improbable survival of another year clinging by his very cuticles to this precious turquoise marble as it spins through the uncaring void.  I either remain one step ahead of the assassin’s bullet or have discovered a way to blog from the Halls of Mandos (and, at a stroke, dis-intermediated the whole disreputable gang of mediums and spiritualists).  However, I think readers should probably apply the most famous insight credited to one William of Ockham and assume that I continue to draw breath for the time being.

As is my middle-aged way, I have planned nothing out-of-the-ordinary (well, ordinary for me) for the day – though I have broken with tradition and had a mid-morning hot chocolate, rather than the usual green tea (with lemon), to create a very mild (almost imperceptible) aura of occasion about the day.  I have opened my birthday cards and they both look lovely: serried ducklings and some Purbeck scenery.  The Royal Academy have caused to be delivered their latest magazine by way of a gift and the sun is shining brightly upon my upturned apple cheeks.  What more could a chap with very limited storage space ask for?  Well, other than a pocket dimension and the return of his lost youth, obviously.

Unusually, I started my birthday with the breaching of the day itself for, as birthday eve morphed into birthday proper, I was enjoying a glass of Auchentoshan at the Talking Heads.  I had somehow failed to go home, despite the jazz finishing not long after 11: I can only assume some locals had managed to overcome my normally taciturn nature and inveigled upon me to share a few words.

The jazz gig itself had been somewhat forgotten and so was rather thinly attended, but it had the most glorious atmosphere – with a hint of being at something secret and slightly illicit.  There was a relaxed vibe as the ‘Bent Brief Gang’ were re-united and having a ball playing together: their sense of fun was contagious and I was soon infected.  I think the gig has a serious chance of making it into my best gigs of 2018 round-up in a few months time.

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The Bent Brief Gang in simultaneous action!

At the gig, I was also gifted with a copy of the Observer’s Book of Music which is even older than me and the score of that classic hit of yesteryear ‘O can you play the clarinet‘ (I bet that kept up morale fighting Rommel in North Africa!).  The former, falling open at a random page has introduced me to the most excellent word ‘purfling’ (from the verb ‘to purfle’) which you should all expect to form the basis of a forthcoming post.  I shall be applying my bass voice to the latter (transposed down an octave or two) once I’ve been fortified by a bite or two of lunch (or dinner, if you prefer).

Given that I have now had sufficient birthdays to use an entire deck of cards, I’ve decided that this is my ‘Ace of Spades’ birthday (using standard Bridge suit-ranking).  So, next year I get to play my Joker!  Consider this a warning!

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On cobblestones we lay

GofaDM is proud to continue its commitment to archaic, fixed verse forms as part of a doomed project to rein in the verbal vigour of its author.  Today, we bring you a gig review in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet.  At a time when many will hand in any bunch of words arranged into roughly 14 lines and call it a sonnet, GofaDM is pleased to stick to the rules (at least insofar as it understands them).  We say “No!” to half-rhyme and anapestic feet; no hens will sully our decasyllablic form.  Some might have expected the next verse to grace these pages to be a sestina, but this is proving quite the challenge and the triune form of the sonnet, capped by a closing couplet, more neatly matched the event being immortalised.

There are some limitations to the explanatory power of the sonnet and so I will offer a little background to provide the merest dash of context to my versifying.

Last Thursday I attended the final gig of the soi-disant first season of Playlist gigs which have become such a highlight of Southampton’s cultural scene.  These have been glorious with each offering an extraordinarily diverse mix of excellent music in interesting spaces.  They attract an open-minded, respectful audience: something which should not be under-estimated and is clearly relished by the musicians. Not only do they provide really good gigs for musicians but also commission new music to be performed: which makes them a fish of a particularly uncommon feather.

This gig took place under one of the arches that once formed a part of the abattoir associated with the city’s cattle market but which have now been transformed into an arts space.  There were three performers: percussionist (and Terpsichorean marvel) Sam Wilson, flautist Pasha Mansurov and prog-rockers A Formal Horse as an acoustic trinity.  Australian composer Drew Crawford had been commissioned to write a new site-specific piece for the concert, which took advantage of its unique acoustics.  For the performance, the space was lit only by the tablet screens of the musicians (whether to read the music or find their instruments, I’m not sure) which was quite magical.

While A Formal Horse played, artist Alys Scott Hawkins attempted the, frankly impossible, task of creating live art inspired by their music which was projected behind the band onto the curving wall of the space.

All power to the elbows of the dedicated group of Playlisters who bring such broad artistic skies to our view.  Count me in as a Playlist Pal and roll on Season 2!

Enough with the procrastination, time to suffer the poetry!

To frictive rhythm words describe a route

Direct to deeds unknown on some staircase.

A Bach Chaconne follows, rising from a flute

Its liquid notes caress once bloody space.

Under the Arches, written for this gig,

Bass flute and vibes in muted light commune.

On electronic mat a whirligig

Of limbs, through laptop, dances out a tune.

To end our revels comes A Formal Horse.

An artist draws, as high voice rises clear

And strings compete in prog rock tour de force:

Behind, bright illustration does appear.

With its mantra ‘Music we want to hear’

Playlist concludes its first triumphant year!

Back to the bean bag

Last Saturday, I once again visited London – missing out on further opening festivities at Studio 144 (my persistent inability to be in two places at once is growing increasingly frustrating) – for the second time in this, the briefest of months.  Needless to say, there were Southampton connections to all of my planned activities – along with the usual seeking out of novelty to bring you, dear readers, (slightly less un)original content.

The first reason to head to the capital was to see Angry! at the Southwark Playhouse, which was directed by a friend.  This has proved a rather tricky beast to describe and it has taken me a full week to arrange my thoughts into a usable (and shareable) order.  To start with, it is not a single play or narrative but rather six individual, gender-neutral playlets of varying length and tone.  The are two actors – Georgie and Tyrone – one female, one male; one white, one black.  After the thumping opening music has boosted a chap’s heat rate to dangerously high levels, they appear together (for the only time) confronting each other.  Thereafter, they take alternate playlets: for my performance Georgie starred in 1, 3 & 5 and Tyrone in 2,4 and 6 but this alternates from performance to performance.  While the playlets are written to be gender neutral, we the audience bring a whole cruise ship’s worth of personal, historical and societal baggage which means that the specific actor appearing in each has an impact on one’s emotional response.  This is particularly strong in 1, where for me the confrontation was around the male gaze – and my insecurity about never having seen the film Bambi – but which would have been quite different with Tyrone on stage.

My feeling is that the first three playlets are (or could be) set in the real world whereas the last three are set in a counter-factual or fantastical world – and it is (just) possible that they share a common world.  Playlets 2 and 4 are brief and tend to the comic, albeit darkly comic for playlet 4.  Playlet 5 has the feel of a dream where each time the protagonist re-examines the light, it changes and with it the whole scene changes (my mind was probably alone in wandering towards Bagpuss).  Playlets 3 and 6 are the longest and have the strongest narrative element.  Playlet 6 is particularly heart-rending – and most obviously speaks to current world events – and because of its powerful, emotional charge, along the fact that it comes last and I’m human (unless and until you can prove otherwise), represented the majority of the impression which I was left with when the play finished.

The staging is relatively simple, with interesting use of lighting – which I am convinced showed shooting stars at one point (or I may have imagined that).  The acting was strong and powerful.  Embarrassingly, I don’t know enough about direction to comment on it – but it certainly seemed to work well with the staging in the round.

Even now, I am still trying to decide whether there were any links or common themes between the playlets, but I am starting to be convinced that there weren’t.  This made the play an odd experience with dramatic shifts in tone, but without any obvious reasons for them beyond that we are now in the next playlet in the anthology.  Each playlet was very dense with language and so there was something of the poetry collection about the whole piece.  Given how much thought it has forced me to devote to it over the past week and the range of emotional responses the playlets generated in me, I cannot deny that it was a very powerful – sometimes distressing – 90 minutes and I am really glad I went: something which I might not have done without the personal connection.  However, I can understand the mixed reactions it has received.

The rest of my day was less challenging emotionally as I raced up to King’s Place to catch a pair of concerts staged by the hang player (and percussionist) Manu Delago (who I first saw at the Turner Sims in Southampton) and some of his friends.  These were both beautiful, evocative sessions falling into a space somewhere between jazz, modern classical and experimental music.  The second was in the glorious space of Hall 1 with a very conventional concert layout.  I think Hall 1 at King’s Place may be my favourite venue for chamber music – having wrested that crown form the City Recital Hall in Sydney (and being a lot more geographically convenient).

However, the first concert – Inside a Human Clock – was a single piece lasting exactly an hour (OK, 59 minutes and 48 seconds – but it does show what good time professional musicians can keep, in marked contrast to the author) and was staged very differently.  The audience sat in concentric circles in the middle and the musicians (or most of them) moved around the outside of the circle.  For some of the participants, this was quite a long walk – or so I thought, until I remembered that Manu quite often drags his friends up an Alp (on foot, with their instruments) to perform, so it probably felt like an easy option.  Within the circle of chairs was a huge pile of bean bags which the audience were also encouraged to recline on during the concert: sadly, no-one was offering peeled grapes…

I was only the second arrival and the staff manning the hall must have seen something in my eye or demeanour that suggested that I might be “up for it”.  I shall continue to insist (until my dying day) that they encouraged me to hurl myself, with wild abandon, into the pile of bean bags: it was not, repeat not, my idea!  As you might imagine, I was all too easily led astray and can assure you that my leap into the pulse-filled unknown was just as much fun as you would imagine.  The only slight downside was I then found myself slightly trapped in a sea of beanbags and only through wild flailing was able to free myself – or at least regain a somewhat upright posture.  Clearly, I spent the actual performance reclining on a great mound of bean bags like one of the more debauched Roman emperors (no horses were harmed in the making of this post).  Eventually, a few others joined me in my bean-bagged splendour: I am nothing if not a trend-setter (so, very much a void).  The concert itself was a really unusual and enjoyable experience, and captured something beautiful in the idea of clocks and the passage of time.  It was possible one of the rare occasions I came close to mindfulness, rather than just being full of mind as it my normal state.  I loved the format of the gig but can see that it would be difficult to practically perform a work requiring a full orchestra: while double-basses did circle us slowly, I think  a harp, celesta or the timpani would have struggled (then again, we do have casters).

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Heliogabalus reborn?  He certainly has all the selfie-taking ability of an ancient Roman…

Needless to day, I now believe all concerts should be savoured while reclining on a sea (or at least small lake) of bean bags – science just needs to come up with the silent bean (it already has the musical bean covered: both in the wind and percussion sections of the orchestra) – and am seriously considering replacing all my chairs at home with beanbags.  Future visitors chez moi, you have been warned!

The Unregarded Digit

Since the new John Hansard Gallery opened last Friday evening, I have already passed through its doors more often than I did in the four-and-a-half years I’ve lived in Southampton and it was resident at its former site on the university campus.  OK, I’ll admit that this wasn’t that hard (it only required the threshold to be crossed twice) but I think it does illustrate the importance of location for a public cultural institution.  After tomorrow, the Gallery closes again until it opens permanently in May.  To my own astonishment, I find I am going to miss it: I won’t be able to just nip in on my way home from the shops or a haircut and I’ll miss my ‘friends’ of the Sampler who will have been replaced by new exhibitions come May.  It seems a good thing that art and culture is integrated with the other stuff of life, not something apart and only for ‘special’ people.

I think the JHG has one other major advantage over other art galleries in attracting passing trade.  Whereas your typical art gallery may boast a more, or less, architecturally distinguished home it rarely offers any taste of the delights which might lie within, except perhaps for the odd piece of sculpture.  At the JHG, a huge amount of the ground floor is comprised of floor to ceiling glass offering any passers-by a full view of some of the art on offer – even when the gallery is closed!  Whilst this exposure to the sun’s all-too-powerful rays wouldn’t suit every artwork, the interactive Sampler exhibits seem perfectly suited to peaking the interest of the public and drawing them inside.  There is a joy in pressing one’s nose against the glass which most art institutions seem to have neglected to their detriment.

When you do enter, you are presented with Huddlehood and the Conversation Station.  Both of these artworks invite the audience to be involved – both with the art and with each other (and also with the staff of the JHG).  On my visit yesterday, I took well over an hour to get past Conversation Station – and even then, never quite got round to playing with the artwork and using its collection of materials of different sizes, shapes and forms to build my own space for conversation.  Instead, I spent my time in fascinating conversation with the artists supporting the exhibit, talking about what role art and galleries might play in society today and what benefits they bring to visitors.  I’m not sure I brought any particularly novel insights to bear, but I will share a few of my thoughts on the matter (if that is not being rather too grand) as part of this post.

I don’t think I come from a particularly arty background.  I don’t remember visiting art galleries as a child and the only art I can remember at home were prints of Terence Cuneo’s paintings of steam trains, each with a mouse hidden somewhere in the picture and I probably wasn’t aware that the pictures were prints at the time.  My childhood was a long time ago, so I may have forgotten some art-based brainwashing by my parents or teachers – but to the best of my knowledge, visiting art galleries is a project I have developed on my own as an adult (in age-terms, if no others).  I’m not really sure how it began but it might have been going to see an exhibition of pre-Columbian art at the Hayward Gallery after reading a book about the cultures of meso-America or it might have been the Neue Pinakothek in Munich as a plausible (and cheap) touristy thing to do in November and where I first saw a Kandinsky: both of these would have been in my mid 20s when I first lived and worked in London.

I value art and galleries as an escape from the always-on, rushing around, instant gratification of much of modern life.  An art gallery is a space where – unless the exhibition is hideously crowded – one can spend time away from the hectic pace of life in just mooching around and contemplating.  You can approach things in your own time, at your own pace and in your own order: unless some over-zealous curator has imposed an Ikea-like labyrinth on the visitor (Grr!  Just because you studied Art History, you don’t have to inflict it on the rest of us!).  Each artwork acts as the start of a conversation with the viewer, but if you don’t want to join in then it won’t be offended if you move on immediately to find a more appealing interlocutor.  There are no comments below the line with an artwork and you can spend as much time, or as little, as you like considering what it is saying to you – which may be entirely unrelated to what the artist imagined it might say – and allowing your mind to wander where it will.  I usually find a few pieces call out to me immediately demanding attention, but it is often a shyer work which ends up becoming my friend.  Sometimes, as with human friends, it is only after spending time with them – and perhaps going away and returning later – that you come to realise that this is the work for you.  Over the my years of gallery going, I think I have come to enjoy a wider range of artworks then I did at the beginning – perhaps this is just age, or perhaps I understand I wider range of points-of-view and approaches to making art than I did.  I’ll usually still encounter work which I view as a complete waste of time and materials – but then again, I don’t like or understand every book, or TV show or film or song that it created so why should I like or appreciate every work of visual art.  Equally, I can’t think of any gallery visit where I haven’t found something which appeals or makes my think or consider a different view point.

Art galleries do tend to have a rather hushed vibe, like a library, and I will admit to turning my mobile phone off when I visit: though this is probably more about the embarrassment of it ringing (anywhere – it’s equally humiliating on a bus) than any need to maintain a sepulchral feel.  I wonder if this puts people off, along with a certain class of gallery goer?  As I’ve said, art is a conversation and, while I often go alone, I do enjoy going with friends so we can have a good discussion about what we see, its merits and what it might mean.  Yesterday, I went alone but as already established bent the ears of the resident artists for far longer than is acceptable in polite society.  This did yield a strong recommendation to head up the stairs to see a video artwork called Don’t Look at the Finger by Hetain Patel.  I am generally rather sceptical about video art and it always seems to have the wrong feel for a gallery somehow: it forces the conversation too much and creates a long time commitment.  As a result, I tend to skip these parts of galleries – but I am so glad I didn’t yesterday.

I can think of few better ways I might have spent 14-odd minutes – and this despite the fact that it was clearly lunchtime by the time the film started. As a work it is tricky to describe: it has elements of sign-language, of dance and of martial arts blended together in a way which could only work on video.  A more traditional staged approached would not have permitted the audience to be close enough, nor to experience the work from teh right places.  It also features the most incredible textiles in the clothing of the participants and, at one stage, these are changed through an origami-like process to reveal even more glorious detail to their design and to reflect a turning point in the piece.  It has also has a strong emotional element, in particular when the main female protagonist smiles for the first time it lights up the whole room and the life of the viewer.  I spent most of the running time in slack-jawed amazement that anything so incredible had been created and I was allowed to watch it, for free!  I shall be returning to watch it again this afternoon, but there is a certain sadness that I can never again see it for the first time…

My other great joy from my visits so far are the leached-out, grey-scale photographs of the play of light and shadow with forms and angles taken of and during the construction of the building.  Seeing them for a second time, I have new favourites to add to my existing friends.  They are such an interesting way of looking on mundane concrete, plaster board panels, wiring and pipes and I’d love to have some at home: I hope the JHG finds some way to keep them as they are beautiful and a document of its rebirth.  If not, I am going to miss them terribly.

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Embracing the grey!

As usual there is no great message here, but if you have a local art gallery why not take a look and, if they are up for it, why not chat to the people working there: you never know what they might introduce you to!

Actually, his bite is (comparatively) better

Oh yes, baby, the author has all his own teeth!  He keeps nothing in a jar by his bedside, or at least nothing that need trouble us here (my bedside jar habits will remain a secret for a while longer), and despite his antiquity continues to chew all his own food.  In fact, thanks to a few years of wearing a brace as a youth, his bite is rather more even than nature intended: though his teeth would still be viewed with horror by many American readers as more appropriate furnishings for the gaping maw of a hideously deformed orc than a modern human.

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Too shocking?  Or would you like maw?

However, I have not invited you all here to discuss the merits (or otherwise) of my enamelled choppers.  Nor am I planning to unmask the murderer hidden in your midst at this stage – it is traditional to thin out the cast/readership rather more before nabbing the villain in the final act.

This post was inspired by a story I half read (OK, it was a very small half – more a longish headline –  that I read) about the fact that it is never too late to learn.  I think this insight may have arrived via Facebook and BBC6 Music, but I wouldn’t swear to it.  Given my own attempts to acquire new skills into my fifties, I can offer at least some anecdotal evidence in support of the claim – though I suspect it may already be too late to acquire some new skills even now.  I don’t have high hopes for fluency in Khoisian languages or any Chinese dialect: denied by neural pruning that happened half a century back.

The story/headline went further to aver that anyone could learn to play Bach in 6 weeks.  I am assuming we are referring to JS here, rather than CPE or, indeed, Barbara.  This interested me as I have just made a start on JSB’s Invention in A Minor (BWV784) in my re-training as a concert pianist.  I’ll admit that the full 6 weeks have yet to elapse, but I am not currently forecasting practical mastery of the piece by that stage.  There will have been progress, but I suspect even with far more diligent and regular (even continuous) practice the first 42 days of this project will be long gone before I feel that I have ‘learned Bach’.  This is a tad galling as I started this process with a number of relevant skills already under my belt in that I could already read music and play the piano at approaching a Grade 6 standard: that someone lacking this background could surpass me so quickly does rather make me wish I’d read the article to understand where I’m going wrong.

Despite my slower than normal progress with Bach, my skills at the piano do progress rather nicely.  I may successfully absorb only a limited percentage of the knowledge my piano teacher seeks to impart at each lesson, but this still accumulates and my level of practice means my motor skills are also improving.  This has, perhaps, led to a degree of hubris afflicting the author.

At a recent piano recital, I was enjoying the start of Beethoven’s Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E Flat (Opus 35) and thinking to myself that the piece seemed potentially tractable.  This delusion did not survive very far into the piece as its perceived difficulty ramped up rather dramatically.  I suppose this should surprise no-one as we know all now that pride comes before a fall – which I presume explains the late August timing of our annual, local LGBTQIA+ celebration.  Nevertheless, I have been inspired to attempt to gain mastery of the piano accompaniment of at least one of the pieces I am trying to sing.   This would allow me to act as my own accompanist for the first time (which is only slightly onanistic) and paves the way for a new career as a singer-songwriter.  Admittedly, I have yet to write a song – but I have produced a parody (on Ghostbusters) and three poems in the last month, so it can only be a matter of time…  I must also admit that my singing has been a tad neglected of late, and for nothing like a score of years, but I am determined to deny the world my sonorous (or at least loud) bass no longer!

This same recital was noteworthy for the world-class coughing from the audience.  One member’s eructive expulsions of phlegm, in particular, were of a truly spectacular sonic nature and in days of yore he could have profitably toured the Music Halls or Vaudeville circuit as a speciality act.

I will not insult you by explaining the title, but instead retire to the piano with voice and fingers in some semblance of harmony.

A boy’s first univocalic

Chatting during the interval of a recent evening of experimental poetry planted, in what passes for my mind, the idea of writing a univocalic poem.  For the few readers who have never encountered this form, it is a constrained form of writing that only allows the use of a single vowel.  You can use as many consonants as you like, but only one of the five vowels may appear.  Univocalic works tend to be short and some vowels are more popular choices than others: I suspect E is favourite and U rarely attempted

It would seem that works of this form often rely on the subject matter of gland games, but I determined to prepare a work that would not require an 18 certificate and could safely be shared with your easily shocked maiden aunt (subject to her availability: rental schemes may be available for those lacking a suitable aunt of their own).

Many writers will allow themselves to use the letter Y in addition to their single vowel and some will permit acronyms (e.g. CD).  I felt both of these approaches were tantamount to cheating and have eschewed such easy ways out.

My chosen vowel is A which I felt was mid-ranking in terms of difficulty and which does leave open the option of later attempting the remaining four in sequence (or I could quit while I am still only modestly behind).  As a result, I have been obsessing about words whose only vowel is A for almost a fortnight and to spare my fevered brain further exertion in this direction have decided it is time to produce my masterwork.  My composition has taken cosmogony and the life (and death) of a star as its theme and goes after the following fashion:

Far, far back

All dark, all black.

Bang!

A vast flash!

And plasma razzamatazz starts.

Gas calls gas,

Mass attracts mass,

Falls –  and larval stars wax.

Fractal lamps cast apart

Acamar and Almaaz,

Alamak and Markab

Clasp starry vassals,

Span dark’s ramparts

And gladly play a span.

At last, gassy ballast all that stays a crash.

Stars pass away as warm dark ash.

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Spanning dark’s ramparts!

Perhaps not the world’s greatest verse creation (in two senses of those words), but I think we can all appreciate the all too rare, if oh-so desirable, brevity of this post!

Postscript:

Last night, as I lay wracked by insomnia, I realised that I was not so wise as I thought as Ys has crept, unwanted and unnoticed, into my verse.  Most are in the form “ay” where the Y is not a vowel, but a couple of examples do act as illicit vowels.  I feel “starry” could be replaced be “astral” for a bonus internal rhyme and “gassy” perhaps with “gas hard” to restore the sterile perfection of the artist’s vision.

Super marine city

Where else could the title reference but my adopted home, and that of Supermarine in days of yore, Southampton.  The city has been overflowing with cultural delights this week just gone – even I have only been able to capture a taste of the events which I shall ‘review’ in my inimitable (because, frankly, who would want to imitate it?) style.

Thursday was press night for the first production in the brand new NST City theatre and I was invited.  Not, as you can readily imagine, as a result of the press credentials granted by dint of writing this blog but as a friend of the NST.  I’ve chucked a few quid their way over the years (and bought a lot of tickets and warmed a lot of seats with my buttocks) but have also become friends with several of the people who work there.  As a result, it was quite a nerve-wracking evening as the brand new building and brand new play really had to shine to the full house of the great and good (and, in my case, the bad and the ugly).

The evening started with drinks – always critical for we members of the fourth estate – in the bar.  For me this was an excellent start as I knew the jazz trio playing and bumped into friends from many aspects of my life in Southampton – which does leave a chap wondering if they should be permitted to compare notes?  We then all filed – only slightly sloshed on fizz – to the auditorium for the play: in my case, just behind David Suchet.  I am holding this fact responsible for the somewhat surreal, Poirot-based dreams I had later that night (nothing to do with any alcoholic beverages I may have subsequently consumed).

The play, the Shadow Factory by Howard Brenton, tells a story I hadn’t known of how, after the Supermarine factory in Woolston was bombed in early Autumn 1940, buildings right across the city were requisitioned to be used for Spitfire construction.  This complex of buildings were known as the Shadow Factory: what a brilliant piece of naming, I can’t believe an urban fantasy novel hasn’t used it!  This episode was critical to the Battle of Britain but is hardly known.  Indeed, I happened to find myself in the Imperial War Museum yesterday and couldn’t find a single book about the Second World War which mentioned it – it was hard enough to find mention of Southampton, despite its importance as a port, production site for fighter aircraft and how heavily it was bombed.

The play was absolutely brilliant and totally rooted in Southampton.  It is gloriously funny at times with many of the jokes hinging on local knowledge: I have never been to a theatrical production with such a feeling of the place in which it is being performed before.  It also presents a far more nuanced picture of people’s response to the war and the impact on the home front of the need of the government and military to prosecute the war than is almost ever heard.  I’d had no idea that people moved to camp on the Common, rather than face continued air-raids, or thought about the impact of the general populace when their homes and businesses were taken for the war effort.  The play had a professional cost of seven (I think, sorry if I’ve missed someone) and a community chorus of twenty-five locals who play an important series of roles.  They are the people of Southampton (on stage as well as IRL), staff in Whitehall and Fighter Command and in sung numbers give an outlet to the emotions of the populace without the need for clunky exposition.  I’ve never seen this done before, but it was really effective.  The chorus were also an important element of making the play personal for me as I knew two of the lads, who carried the 40s look rather well: perhaps it is due a comeback…

The new theatre also deployed some amazing technology with plans of the city and Whitehall, landscape, blueprints, rooms and carpet being projected onto the stage in lieu of set: it was really effective seeing a bomber’s eye view of the city with the shadow factory sites marked.  This play also marked the first use in a UK theatre of nano-winches – NST are nothing if not ambitious – rows of which, in groups of three, held coloured lighting strips which sketched out buildings in light, but also represented bombers swooping and squadrons of Spitfires taking of in defense.  At one point, they even demonstrated the basic aerodynamic principles of flight.  It was beautiful and really well integrated into the play, but I could also see it would be amazing for kinetic artworks made of light.

Everything went like a charm and, so far as I could tell, a good time was had by all: certainly, the play has garnered good reviews in the national press.  One of the highlights for me was seeing Mac, someone I know as we both drink in the Guide Dog, at the press night: he is roughly 95 and was a Spitfire pilot.  This is a link to WW2 which we won’t have for much longer and it was good to see it recognised

Friday night then marked the official opening of Studio 144: the pair of two new buildings which house NST City (North) and the John Hansard Gallery and City Eye (South).  These new cultural spaces have been a long time coming, the councillor currently responsible for culture noted that she was 12 when the project started.  Southampton City Council may not have necessarily moved quickly (but I’m probably on dodgy ground given my tendency to allow projects to lie fallow for a couple of decades), but across multiple administrations and financial crises they did stick with their plans for a cultural quarter for which they deserve credit.  The buildings seem really well designed and it was lovely to see both of them full of people on Friday – indeed, to see people queuing to get in!  Whilst I’d seen the North building before (the night before, for a start) it was my first time seeing inside the new John Hansard Gallery.  I particularly loved some de-saturated grey-scale prints of small details of the building while it was being constructed: as with a lot of art, they found something extraordinary in the mundane that one normally wouldn’t give a second glance.

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Transformer: of the city’s cultural scene!

The ceremony climaxed in a huge dance number performed by children (some in parent’s arms) and young people from across the city under the aegis of Zoielogic.  This was seriously good and unexpectedly acrobatic, particularly as they’d only had a day or two to practice as a full ensemble on-site.  There was a huge crowd in Guildhall Square to watch the dancing and see the new buildings lit-up initially with floodlights and later, as the dance reached its finale, by fireworks launched from the roof of NST City.  There was the strongest sense of a community coming together that I have ever felt in Southampton (and possibly anywhere) and I found myself becoming quite emotional.

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Friendly bombs light up the sky!

I followed all this culture with a music gig at the Talking Heads.  I felt it was important on this day celebrating new cultural facilities and multi-million pound investments to spend time in the deeper, long-standing cultural roots of the city.  Fewer speeches and no sign of the national press, but three stunning local bands playing acoustic sets – Reawaken, A Formal Horse and Our Propaganda – in one of the city’s vital grassroots venues.  In the case of Our Propaganda, it was the first (but I trust not the last) time translating their electric rock vibe to the acoustic stage.

Saturday I spent in London of which more in another post, but rest assured that there was a Southampton connection.  Today, I wandered into the city’s shopping centre – not to shop (though I did snag some reduced celery) – but for yet more culture.  The centre was hosting events to mark the recent start of the Chinese New Year – the Year of the Earth Dog – and I’m ashamed to admit it was the first time I have ever been to such an event.  It was a glorious mix of the UK and China, with hints of the village fete in the speeches and prizegiving but also dragon dancing and martial arts demonstrations.  It may only have been a two-man dragon, but it was very impressive combining dance, puppetry, acrobatics and drumming in ways I’ve never seen before.  I was also rather taken with the Chinese dragon itself with its demurely fluttering eyelashes and taste for cabbage.

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Any geopolitical symbolism is purely accidental…

The next couple of night’s will be gig free as I’m away for work in a cultural Atacama (not everywhere is as lucky as Southampton), but I suspect after the last four days of overload I could probably use the break!